Managers as Coaches- Coaching Skills for Managers

Mitch McCrimmon

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Managers are normally thought of mainly as decision makers. They’re the gatekeepers between a team of employees and those at the top. With so much power, why care about coaching? Managers need to be good coaches today for a number of reasons.

One of the reasons we need to regard managers as coaches is that employees have far more power than they used to have. Managers can no longer simply order them around. Employees have the power to go elsewhere, but more importantly they have knowledge and skills the manager needs. We are so far into the knowledge age that the manager’s fundamental role has shifted from expert to facilitator, from decision maker with all the answers to catalyst and coach.

Modern managers buy services from employees which they sell in turn to their internal customers. Just as companies have formed partnerships with their suppliers and invest in their development, so managers need to see employees as strategic partners and treat them accordingly.

Being in the middle between so many stakeholders and experts, effective managers are essentially catalysts or facilitators. Instead of being experts, they need to know how to draw the best solutions out of appropriate others. This is where coaching skills come in. Coaching can be used to develop people, help them solve their own problems or to facilitate open discussion, brainstorming and better decisions.

Coaching normally means helping people come to their own conclusions by asking provocative but supportive questions. But the same questions and techniques can also be used to draw solutions out of a diverse team of experts. Skilled facilitators do not ask mere factual questions which are best used by experts seeking to gather information so they can make their own decisions. Facilitative questions ask people what they think, what they see as the options for dealing with an issue, what they regard as the pros and cons of various options and how any foreseeable obstacles might be addressed. Coaches also ask questions about feelings, values, needs and aspirations so that the whole person being coached is fully engaged in developing a new way forward.

This is not to say that managers no longer make decisions, that they should do nothing but coach and facilitate. Managers are really playing coaches. They still need to score some goals but, following the 80-20 rule, they should spend the bulk of their time asking the right people the right questions and using their answers to think up new or better questions to ask them again or other people.

Coaching skills can also be used to help managers influence reluctant colleagues. It is often much more effective to ask a colleague how she might benefit from the manager’s proposal rather than to sell her the benefits as the manager sees them. The more the manager can get the other person to articulate benefits for herself, the more likely she will be to buy the proposal. When the manager focuses on selling benefits as he sees them the other person is sitting there thinking of objections. Often people object to proposals simply because they had no hand in developing them. Clever managers have a knack for making people feel as though they developed the idea themselves. This is done by asking the right questions and in a tone of voice that implies asking for advice. People like to be asked for their advice. Nothing is more flattering or shows more strongly that you value that person.

Coaching skills are closely allied to active listening which makes use of prompts in addition to questions to draw more information out of the person you want to listen to. For example, simply saying “I see, ” and pausing can encourage the other person to expand. Or you might say “That’s interesting. Could you please tell me more about that?” Active listening is active because you are not just passively soaking up what the other person is saying. Rather you are prompting and probing supportively to dig deeper into what the other person is trying to convey.

If emotional intelligence is an essential character trait for the modern manager, applying it through coaching is a vital way to show it. The more that managers work in a knowledge intensive industry, the more they need to be able to use coaching skills.

See for more information on this and related topics. Mitch McCrimmon's latest book, Burn! 7 Leadership Myths in Ashes was published in 2006. He is a business psychologist with over 30 years experience of leadership assessment and executive coaching.


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